Pack the Pantries: Food banks working to help Hoosiers, volunteers needed

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INDIANAPOLIS – This holiday season, food banks say there is a greater need than ever before to help fight hunger in central Indiana.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the need in Indiana was already significant. More than 1 million Hoosiers go hungry every year, and one in six Hoosiers go to bed hungry every night.

“We’ve never seen a need like there is right now,” said John Whitaker, Executive Director of the Midwest Food Bank Indiana.

Whitaker said they’re on track right now to distribute nearly $53 million worth of food in the state of Indiana. To put that into perspective, it’s approximately a 30 percent increase from the amount of food distributed in 2019.

“I think right now people really understand what a food bank means to our community and really understand the necessity of it,” Whitaker said.

Volunteers and donations are key to the efforts of food banks and pantries across Indiana working to fight hunger. “I always say Hoosiers give hope. It’s true Hoosiers give something that we all need.”

But right now, Whitaker said they are down 65 percent in volunteers from where they were last year, which is being attributed to the pandemic. Food banks and pantries need volunteers more than ever with a greater need.

Kelli Halderman, volunteer and board member with the Midwest Food Bank has been donating her time helping neighbors in need for nearly ten years.

“I started coming to the food bank with my son nine years ago and pre-packaging food and when he went to school I just kept coming and was able to help unload out bays and enjoy the opportunity to bless others with food,” she said.

Halderman said, “To be able to give people hope and a hand up has been great.”

Al Kuhl is another volunteer from the Midwest Food Bank, who has been with the organization for five years. He was inspired to give back after retiring. “I retired about five years ago and was looking for something I could give back and happened to see this as a little bulletin in my church newsletter, so I said when I retire I’m gonna check that out and see what it is.”

Five years later, he said he has never seen a need as great as there is right near for food in Indiana communities. “The agencies I’ve worked with have talked about how great the need is. Now I don’t actually see that because they’re the ones working with the people that are getting the food.”

“We are putting out so much more food than ever before in the five years that I’ve been here,” said Kuhl.

Kuhl said volunteering is rewarding and offers a sense of hope to not only those receiving the donations, but those doing it.

“Once you get past being tired and some sore muscles, you get the great feeling that you’ve helped somebody today and hopefully made a difference in somebody’s life.”

“We know we’re asking a lot more physical labor of volunteers, but we also need the help,” said John Elliott, President and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana

Whitaker said the Midwest Food Bank recently donated about $480,000 worth of food in Marion County and will hold another distribution event on December 9. It will be held at the Midwest Food Bank on the city’s south side from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

“This year we’re seeing an additional 360,000 meals being missed per day. Here in Marion County. That’s a lot in a month,” said Milele Kennedy, Food Policy and Program Coordinator for the City of Indianapolis.

“It’s very different this year. During this time of year, we always see an increased need for food but having this pandemic happening right now has really impacted families.”

She said Mayor Hogsett and city leaders have worked to address food security and food access, while expanding efforts in the city to fight hunger.

“We have gone above and beyond to get new programs out such as the home delivery of meals,” she said.

Kennedy said they are working hard to provide for everyday needs, while also changing policies and increasing capacity of the city to be able to address hunger as a whole.

“We could always use more volunteers. If you have a local food pantry in your community that you would like to volunteer with, please let them know,” said Kennedy.

“We definitely are committed to continuing support of our local food banks,” she said. “They’ve done so much for the community and during COVID, so we will continue that support for them.”

She said the city hopes to see some reprieve soon from the number of people without food, “but until then we’re committed to being able to support these programs.”

“A little bit goes a long way. We know the pandemic isn’t ending when the holidays do,” said Kennedy.

A $1 gift can provide 5 meals, according to the food banks. A $10 gift provides 50 meals and $25 covers 125 meals.

“We’re doing this during the holiday season, but hunger doesn’t end when the holidays do.”

As part of the Pack the Pantries drive, FOX59 spoke with Nancy Chance, Founder and Executive Director of the Good Samaritan Network. She also shares the push for volunteers to help meet the needs of hungry Hoosiers. You can see that interview, below.

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